The Mirror on the Brothel Wall: John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse

By Stephen Scobie

"Everything a man writes about himself is instructive." — John Glassco

"What one says of oneself is always poetry." — Ernest Renan

"Writing about autobiography," says James Olney, in the opening sentence of the Introduction to his anthology, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, "involves one immediately, irremediably, and uncomfortably in paradox."1  Not the least paradox is provided by the very existence of such a volume: until comparatively recently, autobiography was an art-form largely innocent of criticism and theory.  Now, as is demonstrated by the existence of Olney's book, and of several other important studies, such as those by Elizabeth W. Bruss, William C. Spengemann and Philippe Lejeune, autobiography is inundated by critical attempts to define, redefine, or undefine the form, and its ontological foundations have been so thoroughly "deconstructed" that the final essay in Olney's collection, by Michael Sprinker, is entitled "Fictions of the Self: The End of Autobiography."  Yet the paradox is that most readers have, pragmatically, little difficulty or compunction about skirting the problems of classification (where is the dividing line between "true" autobiography and the autobiographical novel?) or about allowing for the possible bias of a writer (especially a politician) presenting his or her version of past events.  To insist upon the problematic nature of all autobiographical statements, to question the very use of the word "I," may seem an excessive exercise in critical pedantry — and certainly there are many autobiographies, of minimal literary merit, to which the application of such tools would be disproportionate.  But the better the autobiography, the more complex its conscious or instinctive manipulations of the autobiographical persona, the more it will respond to an increasingly complex criticism.  The issues raised by modern criticism, which I intend to sum up — using a terminology borrowed (with thanks and admiration) from an essay by Shirley Neuman2 — under the headings of veracity, historicity and alterity, are in fact present in the texts of the autobiographies themselves.  Sometimes they seem very consciously present, as in the works of Michel Leiris and Gertrude Stein, which Neuman has described as "meta-generic, simultaneously functioning as a theory of the genre and an exemplification of it."3  At other times the issues seem more implicitly present, necessitated by the structure of the genre and the assumptions of all narration; John Glassco, for instance, writing in 1928/32/64, could scarcely be aware of post-structuralist theory.  But Glassco was an intensely sophisticated and self-conscious writer — and even if he might have blanched at the word "alterity," he would recognise, I am confident, the aspect of his own writing which I intend to use it to describe.  Nor would he need Jacques Lacan's "Le Stade du Miroir" to explicate what happens on the brothel wall in "The Black Helmet."

     Before proceeding any further, however, I should acknowledge the difficulty of my continued use of the word "autobiography" in relation to a book which consistently refers to itself as "memoirs." According to M.H. Abrams' A Glossary of Literary Terms, autobiography "is to be distinguished from the memoir . . . in which the emphasis is not on the author's developing self, but on the people he has known and the events he has witnessed."4 Although it may well have been chosen mainly for its pleasant alliteration, Glassco's title, Memoirs of Montparnasse, certainly suggests this orientation: it is the milieu, the setting, that is given pride of place (as it were) over the author's name.  And John Lauber points out that "Perhaps the most striking single quality of the Memoirs, which justifies their title, is the author's skill at portraiture" (my emphasis).5  Finally, the word "memoirs" suggests a more modest, belles-lettristic ambition on the writer's part, which accords well with the unassuming and self-deprecatory stance which Glassco always takes towards his books, especially in their prefaces.

     Certainly, Glassco consistently uses the word "memoirs" in relation to his own work, beginning on page 4, when he states, "I've already abandoned surrealism and decided to write my memoirs — not a journal but a record of my life written in chapters, like one of George Moore's books — to impose a narrative form on everything that has happened since we left Montreal last February." Only once (page 28) does he even distinguish them with a capital M.   He occasionally uses "record" (as above) or "chronicle" (72); he frequently uses the self-reflexive, question-begging form "this book" or "my book"; but he never applies the word "autobiography" directly to his own writing.  He describes Moore's books as "autobiographical" (12), but in relation to himself he uses the term only indirectly, most often attributing it to characters whose literary opinions the reader has been invited to mock or distrust.  Thus Robert McAlmon, before he has read it, says, "let me see this autobiography you're writing.  At any rate it can't be as bad as those surrealist poems" (68).  Four pages later, after he has read and duly admired it, McAlmon uses the phrase, "this book of memoirs," which he proclaims to be "genuine . . . a human document" (72).  Glassco's father, in high-minded outrage, refers to "the Extract from your so-called 'Autobiography' in some magazine called This Quarter" (181); and Harry Crosby, who turns up under the inadvertently comic pseudonym of "Jimmy Carter," and who is dismissed as "a young money-bags who's trying to move in on culture," refers off-handedly to "that autobiographical bit" (231-2).  Glassco extends his preference for the word "memoirs" to other authors as well: on page 236, it is indiscriminately applied to Pepys, Rousseau, Casanova and Frank Harris.  In his "Introduction," Leon Edel adopts the same vocabulary, using "memoirs" not only for Glassco's book, but also for McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together, Kay Boyle's chapters in the same volume, by implication Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, and indeed for all the books he sums up as "the Montparnasse memoirs" (x).  Only once does he "coin a genre," and venture to describe Glassco's book as "a splendid example of the autobiographical picaresque" (xi).

Despite this daunting array of evidence, however, I wish to argue for Glassco's book as autobiography, fulfilling the cogent definition supplied by Philippe Lejeune: "A retrospective account in prose that a real person makes of his own existence stressing his individual life and especially the history of his personality."6  It may be objected that the time-span covered by Memoirs of Montparnasse — somewhat less than two years — is too short to qualify as the history of a life; on the other hand, most of the book is represented as having been written at a time when Glassco was, at least potentially, on his deathbed — and you can't get much older than that, even if you're "only twenty-two" (236).  The more serious question is whether the book's main emphasis is in fact on other people and events (in which case, as Lauber argues, the title is justified) or whether it is on the history of its author's personality (in which case, in Lejeune's terms, it could be accepted as autobiography).  In order to argue the latter point of view, however, I propose to take the long way round, through a discussion of the paradoxes of veracity, historicity and alterity.


The great attraction of an autobiography is its appeal to authority — not just an eye-witness but an I-witness — its claim to be providing "inside information."  The implicit stance of the autobiographer is that he or she knows more about his or her own life than any outsider can; the reader is being given access to privileged information about the protagonist's thoughts, emotions and intentions.  Of course we immediately realise that this privilege can be abused, and, as I noted earlier, most readers make pragmatic allowances for the bias, self-delusion, or deliberate falsification of a self-justifying autobiographer.  Georges Gusdorf speaks of the dangers of autobiographies which seek to provide "a sort of posthumous propaganda for posterity," and which "admirably celebrate the penetrating insight and skill of famous men who, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, were never wrong: Cardinal de Retz, leader of a hapless faction, unfailingly wins back after the event all the battles he had lost."7

     We must distinguish here between elements which are subject to external verification (such as dates of documented events) and elements which no one but the autobiographer could ever have verified (his or her own subjectivity).  In the case of Paris in the 20s, there is a great deal of external verification possible, much of it coming, ironically, from other autobiographies.   Reading all the various volumes of what Edel calls the "Montparnasse memoirs" is rather like reading a vast novel told from dozens of different points of view, an overgrown Alexandria Quartet.  In these autobiographical cross-references, many of the writers' motives (often rather petty ones) become clear: Gertrude Stein is nasty to Hemingway in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and thirty years later he takes his revenge.  Some nodes of fact emerge: we can be reasonably sure that Morley Callaghan did knock Ernest Hemingway down, if not out, in a boxing-match, but every book of the period gives its own, more or less mythic account of the story.  Glassco's version, for instance, reveals as much about his own opinions — his general contempt for Hemingway, his amused condescension to Callaghan — as it does about the event itself: Callaghan

was especially pleased to have boxed with Hemingway, and to have either knocked the great man out or given him a nosebleed — it wasn't clear which.  He was thrilled by this triumph, though he played it down modestly: in his quiet way he was able to invest the experience with a certain mystical quality.  It was clear it was a major event.

     'Well,' said Graeme after he had gone, 'I'm glad he pasted Hemingway.' (154).

     Pursuing the question of the historical accuracy of Glassco's narrative, we could point to several more or less minor errors or controversies: Callaghan's visit to Paris is ascribed to 1928 rather than to 1929; the date of the departure to Nice is similarly advanced;8 in contrast to Glassco's elaborate story about McAlmon choosing the pension in Nice, McAlmon himself states that the "two Canadian boys" had already "discovered" it before he arrived;9 in contrast to Glassco's professed disdain at stealing books by way of payment from the Dayang Muda, Kay Boyle claims that he stole gramophone records, and tells an amusing story of his "bowing stiffly from the waist," which she attributed to "the deference a Canadian owes to British royalty," when in fact he was trying to avoid breaking the records concealed under his jacket.10

     Glassco himself is cheerfully aware of such lapses, and only the most unsophisticated readers would seriously take the Memoirs as a factually accurate record.  Indeed, the degree of fictionalisation has now been shown to extend to the account Glassco gives of the very composition of the book itself.   Thomas E. Tausky, in a fascinating article published elsewhere in this issue,11 reports on his research in the Glassco papers recently acquired by the Public Archives of Canada, and shows that the major part of the writing was done, not in 1932-33 as Glassco claims, but in 1964 (with a fairly extensive revision at some point between 1964 and the publication in 1970).  The effect of these revelations is to push the "paradox of veracity" to an even more acute level; Tausky himself discusses Glassco as an autobiographical liar.  I do not believe, however, that even these drastic new instances of Glassco's fictionalising of events are enough to remove Memoirs of Montparnasse from the category of "autobiography."  The paradox of veracity is, I am arguing, an inherent and inescapable aspect of all autobiographies: all that Glassco has done is to use it in more fundamental ways than most.  The Archives revelations enable us, in fact, to read Memoirs of Montparnasse as an almost Derridean desconstruction of autobiography, a volume which places the genre itself "under erasure."

     This new perspective adds even greater piquancy to one fascinating secondary document which was available long before the papers in the Public Archives.  In a copy of the book sent to Kay Boyle, Glassco inscribed a dedicatory poem which, he claims in an accompanying note, "came straight from the heart, and was purposely not revised or polished." The note concludes, "Hope you like the book itself, though I doubt you will.  Once again, the ineffable D. Tree is not you, and could never be."  The fact that this copy appeared soon afterwards in Canadian second-hand stores (and was bought by the Canadiana Collection of the North York Public Library, with whose kind permission I quote from it) suggests either that Glassco never sent it, or that Kay Boyle, indeed not liking it, and (correctly, as Tausky shows) refusing to believe the denial of her identification with Diana Tree, promptly sold it! The poem is worth quoting in full:

Dear Kay, this loose and lying chronicle
You'll understand, and all its young intention
To dress the naked facts and brightly tell
A young man's story and what him befell
In love — and other sports I will not mention —

For you, the finest writer of our age
— Who knows what best to exclude, what to  invent,
And how the falsehoods of the printed page
Are the true image of our vocal rage — 
Will find the inward sense of what he meant

In these too-frothy pages.  Take a little
Away, and give a little again: then see
(Since truth is all too dull, too noncommittal)
The form and feature of a youth too brittle
Ever to be described, never to be

Grasped save by an open heart like yours,
Heart always warm, certain to comprehend,
To accept and pardon all the painted lures
Of fiction, for the sake of Art — yet end
As you began, I hope, his dearest friend.

6/1/70                  — Buffy

     Glassco admits, then, the inaccuracies of "this loose and lying chronicle," and "the falsehoods of the printed page."  These extend beyond minor factual errors to the whole stance of the autobiography.  It has always been admitted (and, again, the pragmatic reader accepts it as a truism) that the whole project of autobiography is, inevitably and essentially, a kind of lie: any retrospective selection and shaping of material imposes a distortion of the original experience.  Glassco criticises Robert McAlmon's books (unfairly, I believe, but that's another matter) on the grounds that they "were obviously literal transcripts of things set down simply because they had happened and were vividly recollected.  There was neither invention nor subterfuge; when the recollections stopped, so did the story" (79).  The choice of words is interesting: "invention" is linked with "subterfuge," the writer who attempts to "impose a narrative form on everything that has happened" (4) must do so in devious and mendacious ways.

     This question is further complicated, in the case of Memoirs of Montparnasse, by the circumstances of the book's composition — and here we must distinguish between the (largely fictional) account that Glassco gives in the book itself, and what the recent archival research has uncovered.   According to Glassco, the first chapters were written very close in time to the events which they describe: a circumstance which might be used to vouch for their veracity.  But on the contrary, Glassco is suspicious: "I wondered if I was not too close to the events I was relating.  Telling myself I had better wait a month and let them settle into a proper perspective, I closed my scribbler with a sense of relief and went for a walk" (69).  But a month, even several months, is not enough: again, Glassco feels "handicapped by the recentness of the events.  I could not see Daphne and Angela in any kind of perspective and was reduced to stating just what had happened" (117).  That is, he fears he will write like McAlmon (whose ideal was that of direct "contact"), without invention or subterfuge.  Presumably we are intended to see the next layer of writing as benefitting from the "perspective" supplied by three years and a potentially fatal illness; if so, we must take it that Glassco is no longer limited by "just what had happened." Nevertheless, in the fiction of 1964, Glassco is attempting to vouch for the veracity of his memoirs by inventing for them a date of composition considerably closer to the events recalled than their actual one.  "I have changed very little of the original," he claims.  "The revision amounts to the occasional improvement of a phrase and, in the case of the first chapter, the excision of some particularly fatuous paragraphs; also, for reasons of discretion I have given several characters fictitious names.  Nothing else has been altered or omitted" (xiii).

     This claim has always been recognised as, at the least, disingenuous.  The only section of the original MS which had previously appeared — the first chapter, published in This Quarter — reveals a fairly wholesale revision.  (See Lauber's article for a brief analysis of the changes.)  The original experience, then, comes to us modified through at least three, perhaps four layers of writing: the original chapters, the fictitious 1932-33 writing, the 1964 manuscripts, and the final revised text.  Glassco's stress is thus firmly on the graphé rather than the auto or the bios.   Yet he adopts a supremely confident narrative tone.  Only once in the book — when he says of the meeting with Joyce, "I remember little of the talk" (228) — does he allow any hint of the fallibility of his memory to enter directly into his text.

     Glassco's intention "To dress the naked facts" is most pervasively present in his decision to use "the painted lures / Of fiction," to avail himself of all the resources and techniques of narrative prose.   His wholesale use of dialogue is an ideal example of how "the falsehoods of the printed page / Are the true image of our vocal rage."  Of course Glassco did not remember, or even reconstruct from notes, the words he attributes to his characters (many of which must, in the hypothetical first instance, have been spoken in French).   And yet how brilliant they are!  The anarchist rhetoric of Robert Desnos, the weary, disillusioned bitterness of McAlmon, the precocious flippancies of Buffy and Graeme themselves — these are truths, realised in the dialogue with the consummate skill of a major novelist.

     More fundamental even than these novelistic gestures, however, is Glassco's invention of the book's narrator, the youth lying near death "in this granite hospital where all I can see from my narrow bed is a strip of soot-covered Montreal snow and an oblique glimpse of the new Maternity Wing" (212).  This youth is yet another figure of "the writer writing" (see below, section IV): the nurses, we are told, "marvel and twitter at the pile of scribblers that is growing beneath my bedside table" (239).  Glassco's use of a fictitious persona can be compared here to Gertrude Stein's use of the invented voice of Alice in The Autobiography of Alice B.  Toklas.  Both authors ascribe their narrative to a real person, but fictionalise the conditions under which that person is supposed to be writing.  Thus they both invest the very heart of the autobiographical enterprise, the speaking voice and its claim to truth, with the fictionality of writing.  In effect, both Stein and Glassco insert a fundamental différance at the very point of origin in their books, deflecting the mythic source away from the claims of voice to the priority of écriture.

     One way, then, of stating "the paradox of veracity" is to conclude that the autobiographer's implicit claim to give us privileged access to the "truth" must always be realised by methods which are patently not "true." The reader allows for the writer's "invention" and "subterfuge" — and the writer in turn anticipates the reader's allowance.  "No autobiographer," Neuman writes, "is so unselfconscious as not to project himself into the objective world where his autobiography will be read."  Thus, her final statement of the paradox of veracity is: "in order to make his reader believe in the truth of an experience so subjective that the autobiographer alone can attest to its veracity, he will in some sense treat that experience as if he were examining it from outside himself, as if he were a biographer."12  Or a novelist.  So Glassco, in his "Prefatory Note," sees himself, ultimately, "less like someone I have been than a character in a novel I have read" (xiii).13  Or have written.


In this statement, Glassco attempts to establish an absolute distinction between himself as he was in 1969 and "the youthful memoirist in all his flippancy, hedonism and conceit" (xiii).  But the distinction can not be absolute: after all, they share the same name.  This leads us to what Neuman calls "a second paradox involving the ambiguous historicity of the narrator. . . .   Historically considered, the protagonist of an autobiography is not the author; he is someone who has developed into the author."14  For many critics of autobiography, the nature of this development raises profound philosophical questions about our sense of the self: how does personal identity persist through time?  Leonard Cohen provided a verbal enactment of the paradox in the Indian chant from Beautiful Losers: "I change / I am the same," repeated over and over so that "every change was a return and every return was a change."15  Cohen's chant facilitates the movement of consciousness into what Gertrude Stein called "the continuous present," in which identity may be realised in the atemporal realm of "the human mind" as opposed to the memory-dominated "human nature."  In Everybody's Autobiography (Stein's second attempt to deconstruct the conventions of autobiography through paradoxical titles), she wrote,

And identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and then of course you do not believe yourself.  That is really the trouble with an autobiography you do not of course you do not really believe yourself why should you.16

Neuman has discussed Stein's treatment of this problem in detail in her monograph, Gertrude Stein: Autobiography and the Problem of Narration; in her essay, she sums up "the paradox of historicity" by stating that it "demands that the autobiographer treat himself as continuous with his protagonist and that he treat himself as separate from that protagonist.  He describes his past selves because they provide a developmental continuity with his present self; at the same time, he makes those past selves the object of mature description, retrospective analysis, judgment and irony, that is, he treats them as separate from his present self and defines himself against them."17

     John Glassco, it must be admitted, was less inclined that Gertrude Stein to ask the question "am I I ?" He does meditate briefly on "the two ultimate riddles of man: Why are we here and how do we really know we are here?" (213), but he never gets further on the question of consciousness than a rather vague preference for solipsism and Bishop Berkeley.  His serene and precocious self-assurance allows him, "Unlike Pascal," to remain unfrightened by "the vastness of these infinite spaces" (106).  This passage of philosophical speculation is, however, surrounded by a good deal of irony: Glassco is clearly aware of the delicious outrageousness of beginning a sentence with the casual aside, "Unlike Pascal"; he is at the time sitting "on the cool stone of the statue of the two fornicating Eskimos"; and the (doubtless) philosophical look on his face produces the response: " 'Tu as l'air triste,' said the brunette with the rhinestone choker, pinching my ear playfully.  'Où est-ce qu'on va pour pisser?' " (106).

     How is this irony to be read?  Is it directed against the naivety and superficiality of the youthful protagonist's dabbling in philosophy, or against the futility of all philosophical speculation, no matter how profound?  And at what date are we supposed to imagine it as having been introduced into the text?  The two posited levels of revision, the two dates (1932, 1968) from which Glassco claims to be looking back at himself, complicate in this case Neuman's formulation of the autobiographer's capacity for "mature description, retrospective analysis, judgment and irony."  Most of the statements which Glassco explicitly dates as 1932-3 (those, that is, that are attributed to the fictitious narrator), such as the passages interpolated in rather over-obtrusive italics, in fact refuse to perform this function.  On the contrary, the supposedly hospitalised writer defiantly declares "I have learned nothing," and resolves only on practical grounds to "return to habits of dissipation . . . with a little more caution, and to fall in love with a little less abandon the next time, if possible" (236).   After the passage which argues that "half of man's miseries result from an insufficiency of leisure, gormandise and sexual gratification during the years from seventeen to twenty," a passage in italics specifically pleads, "I do not think my own want of moderation, and my bad luck, should altogether vitiate these arguments" (147).  Tausky acutely comments that one result of Glassco's fictitious placing of the narration in the Royal Victoria Hospital is that "The reader's sympathy is falsely enlisted on behalf of an ill-starred youth teetering on the edge of the grave."18  But on this point at least the fictitious narrator of 1932/3 is entirely in agreement with the protagonist of 1928/9; only the ironic writer (of whatever date) holds back, and invites us to contemplate the picture of this brash young man, with his air triste, sitting, unlike Pascal, beside the fornicating Eskimos.


To adopt such a viewpoint would, of course, be to see the protagonist from the outside, as he, whereas the conventional stance of autobiography is, at least on the surface, to view things from inside, as I.   Both the paradox of veracity and the paradox of historicity lead thus to the third and fundamental paradox, that of alterity, the sense of the self as other.  Neuman approaches this idea by stating that the autobiographer, if he or she is to avoid a completely self-enclosed and solipsistic discourse, "must assume and exploit an experience shared by his readers in order that what is most subjective and personal in his experience may be not only 'overheard' but understood;" such an experience, however, "rests upon conventions for the interpretation of behaviour, emotions or thoughts, or upon conventions for the presentation of the self or the interpretation of such a presentation."  The paradox which thus arises is that "the genre posits an autobiographer who presents himself from the point of view of the self and not an other; it demands an autobiographer who must use conventions and, in so doing, treat himself as other in order to make the self accessible to his readers."19

     Further, this alterity is not simply a function of the literary conventions of narrative presentation (though that is an important aspect of it, as Glassco's "Prefatory Note" acknowledges), but is also implicit in the structure of language itself.  The writer of autobiography (that is, the writer who takes seriously the whole idea of écriture), "acknowledges his alterity within his text.  The autobiographical I becomes, in part, he.   Structural linguistics suggests that this doubling is the fundamentally figurative nature of the system of signs that is language itself."20  Neuman is drawing here on a tradition that goes back, ultimately, to Saussure's "doubling" of the word as both signifier and signified; more immediately, the source is Emile Benveniste's definition of "I" as "the person who utters the present instance of discourse containing the linguistic instance I."21

      Elizabeth W.  Bruss speaks of the importance for autobiography of

the fact that language practice commonly allows the same individual who plays the role of speaker to serve as his own referent as well.  The English pronoun 'I' is the extreme example of this practice, simultaneously indicating the subject of the act of speaking and designating the subject of the sentence that is spoken. . . .  Thus the structure of autobiography, a story that is at once by and about the same individual, echoes and reinforces a structure already implicit on our language, a structure that is also (not accidentally) very like what we usually take to be the structure of self-consciousness itself: the capacity to know and simultaneously be that which one knows.22

Louis A. Renza asks how the autobiographer can "keep using the first-person pronoun, his sense of self-reference, without its becoming in the course of the writing something other than strictly his own self-referential sign — a de facto third-person pronoun?"23 The result is what William L. Howarth describes as "a double persona: telling the story as narrator, enacting it as a protagonist."24  Or, as the Canadian poet Bruce Whiteman puts it in his 10 Lessons in Autobiography, "Autobiography is actively being in two places at once."25

     Memoirs of Montparnasse, I wish to argue, is permeated by this sense of alterity, the other within the text.  This use of alterity is my justification for seeing Glassco's book as truly "autobiography," and not, in the limiting sense, "memoirs."   For the portraits of other people in the book are not there only for their own sake (as in "memoirs") but as, precisely, part of that "emphasis . . . on the author's developing self" which Abrams used to distinguish autobiography.  Alterity can be seen, as I have already suggested, in Glassco's quasi-fictional presentation of "This young man [who] is no longer myself . . . [who] is less like someone I have been than a character in a novel I have read" (xiii).  But it is present also in two other images, which recur throughout the book, and which are darkly linked to each other: that of the writer writing, and that of the fatal woman.

     At the beginning of Chapter 4, Glassco records, "That evening I began the first chapter of this book, and when anyone asked me what I was doing in Paris I was now able to say I was writing my Memoirs.  The reactions ranged from sympathy to good-natured derision" (28).  Memoirs of Montparnasse is full of such self-reflexive comments: it is a book about its own writing, and even, at times, about its own not being written.  Glassco presents himself as the writer writing his own life, or living his own writing.  James Olney comments with some surprise on the phenomenon of Maya Angelou's autobiography being the first book she had published:26 but John Glassco, at least theoretically, predated that by forty years.  The normal assumption is that a writer's autobiography comes at the end of a career in which his or her own identity as a writer has already been established by other works: but Glassco proposed to make his life and his work synonymous, to write his career as he was living it.  "How goes the life of literature?"  Robert Desnos greets him on page 33, and the same words are repeated, like bookends, by Serge Kirilenko on page 216.   It was as a writer of his own life that Glassco projected himself to his contemporaries: McAlmon remembered him in Nice "writing . . . some memoirs.  He was then eighteen, and much the oldest, most ironic, and disillusioned of the three of us."27  One wonders how self-conscious people were around him, especially after the appearance of the first chapter in This Quarter — how aware they were of that ironic eye and that precocious wit observing them, writing them, turning life into literature.  Certainly Glassco keeps his memoirs very much in the foreground of the Memoirs, even when he is telling us about his disinclination to write them.  Whether positively or negatively, they remain the major literary preoccupation of this intensely literary work.  When he is not talking about his own memoirs directly, he offers oblique parallels by talking about other people's.  His own "loose and lying chronicle" is not dissimilar to that of the Dayang Muda (into which, according to Kay Boyle, he and she "inserted in the mouths of the long-dead great additional flights of repartee"),28 and the very absence of his own memoirs when he is neglecting them finds a double, in a dizzying escalation of the fictiveness of autobiography, in the inuented memoirs of Madame Daudet (205).  For all his disclaimers — "I was so happy that writing did not interest me at all" (28) — it is primarily as a writer, as an autobiographer, that Glassco presents his own character.

     But that character is of course doubled, reflected in a series of third-persons which are, at least in part, projections of the first-person.  Early in the book, Graeme Taylor has a vision of Buffy which provides, I believe, one of the controlling images of the whole autobiography: "As I begin writing again, his voice startles me in the silence.  / 'I just saw you in a dream — as an old man with whiskers, writing . . .' " (5).  This is the "voice" that emerges from the "silence" of writing, just as the "vocal rage" of all the writers Glassco will meet emerges from the silence of "the falsehoods of the printed page."  Specifically, the old writer recurs in a series of portraits which all seem to repeat the image of Graeme's dream: George Moore, Frank Harris, Richard Le Gallienne.  They are all writers whom Glassco admires — "Moore at this time was still my literary god" (10); Frank Harris' autobiography "had such life it already breathed immortality" (121); "Richard Le Gallienne!  I was filled with awe" (158) — and whom he even (in Moore's case at least) physically resembles, or, more accurately, was to come to resemble.  If the portrait of George Moore was indeed written in 1928, it was written with a remarkable prescience of what John Glassco was going to look like (more or less) in 1969; but if it was written in 1964, and if, as Tausky demonstrates, the meeting with Moore was wholly fictional, the "prescience" is obviously diminished — but the significance of the similarity, as a deliberate invention, is greatly enhanced.

     He was much frailer than I had ever imagined, but there before me were the sloping shoulders, the beautiful drooping moustache, the exquisite chinless face, the heavy-lidded eyes, the tiny feet.  He rose, his hands fluttering slightly.

     'From Canada,' he said.  'Dear me.'

     His hand felt like paper.  The bright eyes looked straight into mine, then dropped to my feet. (11).

Moreover, all these writers are, like the fictitious Glassco in his hospital bed, on the verge of death and oblivion.  Of Moore, Graeme says "doubtfully," "He must be almost ninety" (11); of Harris, Sally Marr says, "I'd almost forgotten the old boy" (121); of Le Gallienne, Glassco says, "I had thought he was dead" (158).  (Later, the same comment is extended to a writer's widow, Madame Daudet: "I had no idea she was still alive" (196).)

      Each of these writers can be seen as a "double persona" of Glassco, an embodiment of his own alterity within the text.   Like him, they are each "an old man with whiskers, writing"; like him, they are (Le Gallienne excepted) best known for their scandalous autobiographies; like him, they are scarcely remembered as being alive: only the elegance of their prose stands between them and l'oubli.  These three major portraits, spaced throughout the book, act as reminders of Glassco's own necessary self-doubling; they are the "he" "dissimulated"29 in the narrative "I."

     I would not wish to argue that every portrait of another writer in the Memoirs is to be taken as representing Glassco's alterity: I pick these three because of their explicit recapitulation of Graeme's dream.  Some portraits, such as the brilliant depiction of Gertrude Stein, are clearly to be read (as in "memoirs") for their own sake.  An interesting case might be made with regard to Robert McAlmon, who seems in many ways the deliberate reverse-image of Glassco, both in his theories about writing and in his sourly embittered rejection of life's pleasures.  But McAlmon is not as clearly associated as the "old" writers are with the shadow of death — and it is that shadow which falls across Glassco's other major projection of alterity, the fatal woman.

     Diagnosing Glassco's infatuation with Mrs. Quayle, Caridad de Plumas offers an analysis of the fatal woman at a level of sophistication which may seem slightly out of character for her,30 but which is quintessential Glassco.

You should realize it is not this American woman you love — it is her imago, which is in turn only an imaginative projection or radiation of your own other self.  You are plagued by your double identity, you wish to adore your passive self, at the same time as you wish to be rejected by it, for reasons which are your own business.  Well, you have chosen to burn your incense before this silly little nymphomaniac.  You are running headlong to your own destruction — it's a kind of game your fancy is playing.  This game can have serious consequences to your health. (184).

This bizarre analysis is taken one step further in Glassco's novella, "The Black Helmet," when the hero recollects one of his erotic "stratagems," in which he visits a brothel where two prostitutes dress him in women's clothes, put make-up on his face, and rape him in front of a large mirror.   The commentary that follows deals again with the "plague" of double identity:

     I've begin to re-live that silly pantomime before the mirror, just when I thought I had put all that behind me for good.  But with a difference: this dead self interests me in a new way now.  That double role, devised simply as an expedient of sexual fulfilment, now strikes me as having had a certain originality, even a certain value, as if it signalled a striking out of my own vein, something specially fitted to my stupid limitations.

     I thought of it, then, as giving the illusion of a sexual duality.  And was that, after all, wholly an illusion?  Perhaps the sense of a double vision of oneself is the reality which underlies and explains all feeling, if not all consciousness.  Even while actively doing or desiring, do we not project our own response, our passive wishes, into the object of the act or the desire?

     There's even more to it than this: there's the inevitable synthesis of the two visions in that of a third self — the spectator, the seer, and his vision is the most complete of all, the most artistic, the keenest.  So the real beauty of any act involving two persons lies not so much in the double part one plays in it as in the vision of the whole action, seen as if in a mirror, that keeps flashing on and offin the little theatre of the mind.  In the act of love above all: as well as being both actor and actress, the lover is an audience.

     For me, then, the mirror on the brothel wall was merely an artifice, an economy by which three simultaneous visions were united and trained on the single picture of myself.  And the two women?   Only dummies, props.31

      As is characteristic of Glassco, this moment of abstruse theorising is immediately undercut by the comment of Miss Delarchet (the fatal woman, the goddess Artemis): " 'Heavens,' murmured Miss Delarchet, putting down the book,'the young man is almost demented.  Did you ever hear such nonsense?' "32   But it is clearly not nonsense.  The mirror on the brothel wall reveals the ultimate paradigm of autobiographical writing: the "I" who acts doubling itself as the "(s)he" who is acted upon, and tripling itself as the actor/writer/reader.  The split consciousness which must accommodate the alterity even of the word "I" projects itself into the fetishistic disguise of costume and make-up, becoming a text which must be read in a mirror, which doubles and reflects the autobiographer searching in his memory for the image of his own life; somewhere hovering close is the beguiling pun of mirror/memoir, and also the bilingual pun from mirror in its French form (glace) to the author's own name.33

     But Caridad is right: double identity is indeed a plague, et la femme est vraiement fatale.  The connection between this psycho-sexual doubling as the fatal woman and the whole project of autobiography is made clearer by a passage in Georges Gusdorf's pioneering essay, "Conditions and Limits of Autobiography":

The subject who seizes on himself for object inverts the natural direction of attention; it appears that in acting thus he violates certain secret taboos of human nature.  Sociology, depth psychology, psychoanalysis have revealed the complex and agonizing sense that the encounter of a man with his image carries.  The image is another "myself," a double of my being but more fragile and vulnerable, invested with a sacred character that makes it at once fascinating and frightening.  Narcissus, contemplating his face in the fountain's depth, is so fascinated with the apparition that he would die bending toward himself.  According to most folklore and myth, the apparition of the double is a death sign.34

The sickness of Narcissus is, for Glassco, the potentially fatal sickness not just of his younger self, but of the whole of Western culture since the dawn of Romanticism, which he describes, later in "The Black Helmet," as "a kind of disease, whose germ was first isolated and pampered by Rousseau, with his nervous disorders, his skirted Armenian costume and his famous 'I am not made like any man I have ever seen.' "35   This quotation comes, of course, from the first page of Rousseau's Confessions, the book which is generally accepted as the starting-point of modern autobiography.

     If autobiography necessarily involves a sense of alterity, and if "the apparition of the double is a death sign," to write autobiography is, then, to court death.  Glassco projects his alterity in terms of the writer writing (an old man on the point of death) and of the fatal woman (who infects him with venereal disease, tuberculosis, and the plague of double identity).  Most of all, Glassco projects this potentially fatal alterity in his invention of himself as the 1932/33 narrator of the Memoirs, the writer writing on the point of death.   To write one's life instead of living it is to run the risk of the final chapter.  "I don't like an unhappy ending to a book," says Narwhal, near the end of this book.  "I'm not saying I like a happy ending either.  I'm led to wonder if a book should end at all" (230).  Especially an autobiography.

     Writing about Robert McAlmon, and ostensibly criticising his style, Glassco observes, "when the recollections stopped, so did the story, and one had the impression of a shutter being pulled down over the writer's memory as if in an act of self-defence against a denouement either unformulated or too painful to remember" (79-80).  In the one ungraceful gesture of his own book, Glassco commits just such an "act of self-defence": the MS breaks off on the promise of "the land of sunshine and dancing.  Spain" (240), omitting as "too painful to remember" the subsequent suffering (which is described, in a neat self-reflexive touch, as "indescribable") of Mrs. Quayle's infidelity, and avoiding the "unformulated" and perhaps unformulatable "denouement" of the autobiographer's death.

     Many ironies follow, however, from that conclusion.  John Glassco may not have written his memoirs in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, but he did not die there either (Victoria does not qualify as a fatal woman); he lived to produce a body of poetry as fine, classical and elegant as any written in Canada this century, as well as certain curious tales which he described (in the "Preface" to The Fatal Woman, reworking the reference in the Memoirs) as "three dried-up little sticks of incense lit on her altar for the inhalation of the judicious."36   He continued to double himself as other writers, producing a series of translations which stand, with F.R. Scott's, as English Canada's finest tribute to the literature of Quebec.  And above all he produced the Memoirs themselves, the writing which survives the life, the life which survives the writing, the image of the self he never and always was.


  1. James Olney, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 3.  The epigraph from John Glassco is from Memoirs of Montparnasse (Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 237.  All subsequent page references to this book will be given in parentheses in the text.  The epigraph from Ernest Renan is quoted in Olney, p. 42.[back]

  2. Shirley Neuman, "The Observer Observed: Distancing the Self in Autobiography," Prose Studies, IV, 3 (December, 1981), 317-336.   I am extremely grateful to Professor Neuman for letting me read this article in typescript, and make such extensive use of it.[back]

  3. Shirley Neuman, "Gertrude Stein's Dog: 'Personal Identity' and Autobiography," Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, X, 1 (March, 1983), 63.[back]

  4. M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th edition (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), p. 15.[back]

  5. John Lauber, "Liberty and the Pursuit of Pleasure: John Glassco's Quest," Canadian Literature, 90 (Autumn, 1981), 71.[back]

  6. Quoted in Olney, p. 18.  Olney is very hostile to Lejeune's ideas, and does not include an essay by him.  Neuman, on the other hand, finds Lejeune the most important and stimulating of current theorists of autobiography.[back]

  7. Georges Gusdorf, "Conditions and Limits of Autobiography," in Olney, p. 36.[back]

  8. See Sanford J. Smoller, Adrift Among Geniuses (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975), p. 360.  Smoller also suggests that Robert McAlmon actually owned the lease to the famous flat on the Rue Broca.  See Smoller, pp. 193-4, and Glassco, p. 49.[back]

  9. Robert McAlmon and Kay Boyle, Being Geniuses Together (New York: Doubleday, 1968), p. 307.[back]

  10. Being Geniuses Together, p. 333.  Glassco in turn always disputed many of Kay Boyle's stories, such as the one about him crying when inadvertently struck by a glass of beer thrown at Boyle by McAlmon; see Being Geniuses Together, pp. 355-6.[back]

  11. Thomas E. Tauskey, "Memoirs of Montparnasse: a Reflection of Myself," Canadian Poetry, No. 13 (1984), 59-84.[back]

  12. Neuman, "The Observer Observed," 320.[back]

  13. It is interesting to note that, some years after Glassco, Roland Barthes used a very similar formulation as an epigraph to his "autobiography," Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (Paris, 1975): "Tout ceci doit être considéré comme dit par un personnage de roman."[back]

  14. Neuman, "The Observer Observed," 320-1.[back]

  15. Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966), p. 131. [back]

  16. Quoted in Shirley Neuman, Gertrude Stein: Autobiography and the Problem of Narration (Victoria: English Literary Studies, 1979), p. 38.[back]

  17. Neuman, "The Observer Observed," 322.[back]

  18. Tauskey, 73.[back]

  19. Neuman, "The Observer Observed," 323.[back]

  20. Neuman, "The Observer Observed," 323.[back]

  21. Quoted in Roland Barthes, "To Write: An Intransitive Verb?" in The Structualists: from Marx to Levi-Strauss, ed. Richard T. De George and Fernande M. De George (New York: Anchor, 1972), p. 161.[back]

  22. Elizabeth W. Bruss, "Eye for I: Making and Unmaking Autobiography in Film," in Olney, pp. 300-1.[back]

  23. Louis A. Renza, "The Veto of the Imagination: A Theory of Autobiography," in Olney, pp. 278-9.[back]

  24. William L. Howarth, "Some Principles of Autobiography," in Olney, p. 87.[back]

  25. Bruce Whiteman, 10 Lessons in Autobiography (Guelph: Gryphon Press, 1981), Lesson I.[back]

  26. Olney, p. 15.[back]

  27. Being Geniuses Together, p. 307.[back]

  28. Being Geniuses Together, p.333.[back]

  29. This word, which is used by Philippe Lejeune, is quoted by Neuman, "The Observer Observed," footnote 27.[back]

  30. Tausky reports that in the MS it is McAlmon, not Caridad, who issues this warning.[back]

  31. John Glassco, The Fatal Woman (Toronto: Anansi, 1974), pp. 20-1.[back]

  32. The Fatal Woman, p. 21.[back]

  33. I am indebted to Maureen Scobie for this delightful suggestion.[back]

  34. Gusdorf, in Olney, p. 32.[back]

  35. The Fatal Woman, p.34.[back]

  36. The Fatal Woman, p. iv.[back]